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Advancing Whistleblowing

Whistleblowing at the heart of Government – NAO Report just published

The National Audit Office investigation into Whistleblowing in the Civil Service reports ‘a curate’s egg’ at the heart of government. At first glance one should be delighted that 139 out of 143 annual reports and accounts for government departments and agencies contain material on whistleblowing. At least it’s now being taken seriously one might think. Indeed, with 52% of civil servants now believing that ‘ it is safe to challenge the way things are done’ and 75% agreeing that they were ‘confident that a concern raised under the Civil Service Code would be properly investigated’, we might rest easier in our beds secure in the knowledge that all’s well in the Minster.

However, dig a little further and we find that only 12% of ‘completed concerns recorded’ acknowledged wrongdoing (so what were the other 88% about?) and only 5% led to changes in policies or procedures – meaning 95% went nowhere and achieved nothing.

But there are gems in the report. One cannot but applaud the paragraph extolling what should be at the heart of government servant culture:

‘Dealing with whistleblowing effectively needs organisational judgement and discernment. Where whistleblowers challenge entrenched views, organisations need to genuinely ‘hear’ their concerns, even where whistleblowers seem to put at risk organisational goals. Organisations that see them as inconvenient or unhelpful risk failing to learn from the insights whistleblowers offer. A well written whistleblowing policy does not in itself improve the effectiveness of arrangements. An effective whistleblowing regime also requires government to get better at raising awareness of whistleblowing, and as far as possible minimise the stress and difficulty of being a whistleblower. High-performing organisations want to hear from whistleblowers, and recognise that they can support organisational learning, even if the process is challenging.’

But is it really implemented? The report notes that progress with implementing whistleblowing arrangements across Government is “slow and inconsistent” and that, while organisations have put support for officials who sound the alarm in place, little is known about whistleblowers’ experiences. The Government People Group within the Cabinet Office collects information about whistleblowing but does not systematically analyse the information it gathers or produce routine reports and insight about practice, trends or learning for government. It’s like doing the field research but then ignoring the analytical stages that show what’s working and, more importantly, what’s not working! Obviously the Cabinet Office need to find (and fund) some doctoral researchers with an interest in the topic to conduct some further work in this area – especially on the extent of whistleblower complaints of intimidation and victimisation, which our research has clearly proven to be the primary obstacle to speaking up.

Responsibility for dealing with whistleblowing disclosures, and their exponents, is devolved to Departments. But then there is no mandatory reporting to Cabinet Office and Departments decide for themselves what they expose to the Centre. Thus there is no central visibility of slow responses to concerns, lack of effective or serious action or concerns being buried when they should be elevated – which smacks of protectionism and a fear of damage to departmental and personal reputations. Should we be surprised? No. Should we want a more effective system put in place so that the Cabinet Office can take effective action? Yes.

The Ministry of Defence, Department for Work & Pensions, HM Revenue & Customs, Home Office and Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office reported around 77% of concerns, and of these, 40% related to fraud. Thus, we now know where the spotlight on corruption ought to focus with intent.

Disturbingly, no Department stated that they seek feedback from whistleblowers and there is no centrally collated information on complaints from whistleblowers of intimidation or victimisation as a result of raising a concern. Among the 78 anonymous whistleblowing cases where a reason is recorded for remaining anonymous, around 65% admitted that they had withheld their details for ‘fear of reprisal, recrimination or victimisation’. One has to conclude, therefore, that greater measures are needed to protect whistleblowers, and they need to be both notably effective and very visible in order to overcome the deterrent effect that prevents people from coming forward in future.

In summary, it is a good report that exposes worrying failings in the Civil Service’s current whistleblowing procedures. However, it offers reasonable recommendations, urging Departments to collect better information on whistleblowing and what happens to whistleblowers after they report concerns –especially in determining the extent of complaints of intimidation or victimisation. Gareth Davies, Comptroller and Auditor General of the NAO, notes: ‘Whistleblowing is a vital organisational protection. …it provides a way for organisations to hear concerns about serious wrongdoing that may not otherwise be discovered, and a number of recent high-profile cases underline why it’s important that effective arrangements are in place.’

So there’s hope on the horizon, but only if the Cabinet Office (and their political masters) take heed

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